The Velvet Time Machine
"Let's get the band back together!"
Is this the battle cry of the midlife crisis? The rallying slogan point with those with far more paunch than punch? Is this just grown men, well past middle-age, trying to relive their youth and former glory? Is it a ridiculous idea fraught with potential hazards?
You double betcha.
Yes. But if you never try anything outside of your comfort zone, what good are ye to thyself?
PART 1. Good or bad idea?
During our spring fund drive, I queried our resident wise man, Larry Groce: "What advice would you have about getting a band back together?"
Larry, in his inimitable Larry style, was straight to the point: "Play the easy stuff and don't practice too much." He told me a cautionary tale about one local musician who tried this and soon old band mates were making unreasonable demands; that old wounds and old ways spoiled what might have been a cheerful reunion. His point was clear: "You may be reminded of why you broke up in the first place."
With Larry's advice, caution was the way I proceeded. Still, I was hopeful and had an open spirit. Most certainly, I was ready to play some music with my "Bros."
The Velvet Brothers had disbanded in 1994.
Emails were sent and the general consensus was a positive "yes." In fact, there was no ambivalence or hesitation. With seven out of eight Velvets confirmed, it was now up to Glenn, our drummer, who lives out-of-state, to agree.
Glenn and I had not kept in touch, so I was sure what his reaction might be. Emails sent received no answer and so, I was armed and organized with an elaborate pitch when I called him. Ready to shamelessly draw upon any nostalgia, brotherly love, good memories - any weapon was game to win him over.
After the preliminary catching up on each other's lives, I dropped the big ask. Before I could roll out my spiel, "Yes" came the answer. It was not a tepid affirmation, but a warm and welcome embrace. The kind of warmth that Glenn, or Tito as we called him, is known for.
Part 2. A very brief history.
The Velvet Brothers were active on the Charleston scene from around 1987 to about 1994. What started as a duet became trio to quartet to finally a nine piece group.
We went from playing once a year (Yes, true) to having every weekend filled with bar gigs. We did everything a local band could do in a city of our size: bars, bars and more bars to country clubs, festivals and private dance parties. We were a local band who gained a large and loyal following.
Velvet-the name came from a sense of humor about lounge music, lounge lizards and about ourselves. Plus, we always strove to be smooth, no matter the style. We played a lot of latin, rock, and originals. In fact, our originals came to be our calling card. That, and our wackiness.
We always factored fun and a sense of humor into our shows: we wore smoking jackets and tropical shirts, carried drink parasols with us and even had a plastic palm tree. On occasion, we would have a blender on stage. We even gave it a "solo." Crazy good times.
There you go - the Velvet Brothers in a nutshell.
Part 3. The nitty-gritty.
With everyone on board, there were many things to decide. Around mid-June, seven VBs (one via Skype) gathered to discuss how we should do it.
Where? We threw out several local venues. How? What about money?
There were ideas to sell tickets, play a concert-like venue with cover charge - all sorts of money making schemes. Personally, I saw money as an impediment to the real goal: play music together, but I was only one vote. Finally, a venue was picked and the bar owner's dictates were simple: $100 to split seven ways, but no cover charge was allowed. That settles the money question, eh?
With Larry's words in mind, I kept waiting for any tension to surface. Not a hint. Nothing but good vibes here. Should I believe it?
Money, although at times a source of tension, was never a major problem for us. We had plenty of gigs-even ones that paid decently. A little thing called life interfered - growing up, maturing - that's what made the music stop.
The Velvet Brothers broke up with little acrimony among the members, but certain things were not (I speak for myself here.) handled very well. If money, jealousy and power struggles don't create a crack in a band's solidarity, then maturity certainly will. In our case, my best mate Craig no longer had an interest in the band, but was in love and wanting to get married. I hated that and it caused a real schism in our friendship for a while. It sounds absurd now, but a man in his thirties is still a bit immature and foolish.
We limped along until we all realized that it was over. The good times, the fun, the music were all overshadowed by this loss of friendship. Craig and I didn't talk for a number of years. That was so stupid.
I played in two more groups post Velvet, but my spirit was lacking. Eventually, I dropped out of the playing scene completely. I was toasted and everything about the bar life and playing in a band was a huge turnoff.
Part 4. The elephant not in the room.
There was one question remaining: what to do about the band member who, for lack of any other way of saying it, got booted out of the band?
Without dropping a name or listing long-ago injustices, I put it to each person to express precisely how they felt about said individual to join us in this reunion. Sum and substance: his presence would not a difference make.
All that was left was to fish through old set-lists and start working on them.
Part 5. Why are you practicing so much?
This is the question my wife kept asking me. We were having so much fun.
This is where some readers want schadenfreude.
This is the part where I'm supposed to tell you of the horrors, the missteps, the arguments, the slamming of doors and the bitter disputes that made the Velvet reunion grind to a halt or be very big mistake.
None of the negative happened. We loved it.
If maturity broke up the Velvets, it was maturity that made this whole reunion a joy from every perspective.
It was clearly evident from the first practice that we were almost ecstatic to play this music. After all this time, we still have a lot of respect and affection for one another. It was also apparent that old men like to get out of the house and have some time away from their responsibilities. To be kids again.
All of us are better musicians now, more accomplished, with nothing to prove. Certainly more careful with our choice of words, knowing when to kid and when to not, and realizing the value of the contributions of each musician. Web stuff - that's Al's expertise. Marketing? That's Bryon.
Things change, but musician's habits don't. A chord progression might be clarified only to be unconsciously changed later. An elaborate form to a song is just begging for a derailment. Song tempos will be sluggish (Low Rider by War is a classic case for us.) unless acted upon (Read: play original to group after sleepy performance.) by an unbalanced force (me).
Part 6. Out of the basement to the gig.
Rehearsal is the time to try new things, to learn new starts of old songs, to learn new tunes. It's a safe zone for riotous mistakes - everyone makes them and therefore is an open target of good natured ridicule. However, as much as fun as rehearsal is, a band still has to deliver the goods on stage. That's the terror (if the band has a bad night) or the joy when the music flows without struggle. It all comes down to the gig in the end.
The absolute enthusiasm we shared when tearing through these old songs was so obvious to the crowd - or so I was told later. Originals or covers, each got a firm Velvet workout.
Overall, I don't think I've played a recent gig that went so well and produced so much happiness. I seriously doubt we can ever top that one. It was a special, magical night and we were rewarded beyond perhaps what we deserved.
Part 7. What did we learn, kids?
Every once in a while, the universe cuts you a break and gives you a great one. This was one of those ultra rare moments when the numbers, stars and biochemical elements align to grant you a perfect evening. The audience was more than generous. The place was packed to capacity, we sounded good, even great at times and there was a smile on everyone's face.
We all have matured and now realize that what we had (and have still ) a great musical chemistry. You take away one of those seven guys and the whole dynamic shifts. It's a feel, an undefinable x factor that musicians cannot explain, but when I'm playing music with these guys, I am home again. No other configuration makes me feel like a Velvet Brother. I love these guys. They are my brothers.
And being a Velvet has been one of the best things I have ever been.
To conclude, we are lucky that we still can stand to be in the same room with each other, let alone lay into a crispy groove with smiles all around. So, a word to you working bands: enjoy your time together, get your ego out of the way and stop and look around the room.
"The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but time and chance happens to them all," to paraphrase the Good Book. If you're really lucky, one day your band will get all nostalgic for time long since past and you will drag your aged body to a friend's basement and play music that hasn't been under your fingers for two decades.
And if you're really, really lucky, you might discover that time travel is possible.
With a lot of luck and a little Velvet.